Blessed Sacrament campus stirs controversy again

The Blessed Sacrament Church campus has been the source of recent controversy, as the proposals to turn the former Catholic church into 37 luxury condos and the Norbert School building into 21 apartments has drawn the ire of residents concerned about gentrification.

The controversy has now ensnared two prominent Jamaica Plain organizations—the Hyde Square Task Force (HSTF) and the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation (JPNDC)—pitting them against each other. Both organizations fight against gentrification, but the JPNDC is saying it needs the projects to move forward because of financial reasons. JPNDC and New Atlantic Development bought the campus in 2005.

Local state Rep. Jeffrey Sánchez is encouraging the two groups “to go back to the table” to work out their differences.

The HSTF, a youth organization that owns a building on the campus, had already made an offer for the alternative use of the church building and recently made one for the school building. JPNDC is saying that it is negotiations with HSTF and another bidder for the alternative plans for the church building, while it already has a legal contract with a developer, the Norbert School Associates, for the Norbert School building.

Claudio Martinez, executive director of HSTF, said his organization has been on the record opposing the Norbert project for several months and has a vision to turn the church building into a community space “that can be enjoyed by all and not just a few that can afford luxury condo prices.”

“We have made several offers to buy both the Norbert and Church buildings and received very unreasonable and unclear rejections back from JPNDC.”

Martinez also referenced a letter signed by Hyde Square community leaders, including himself, that asked Mayor Thomas Menino to delay or stop the approval of the two projects until revisions that meet prior goals or lessen impacts. He said about 100 merchants and residents have signed onto a petition supporting the letter.

Richard Thal, executive director of JPNDC, said his organization and HSTF have done “a lot of great work together” for 20 years, but, he added, “This is not one of the smoother times of our relationship.”

Thal declined to speak about the church project. He said the JPNDC is still in negotiations with HSTF and the other bidder and does not want to “negotiate through the media.” But, Thal said, the JPNDC is “negotiating in good faith.”

“We have to see how they will play out going forward,” he said. “We would like to see something worked out.”

In terms of the Norbert School building, Thal said the JPNDC is already in a “legally binding agreement” with the Norbert School Associates and that it is “not reasonable to consider [HSTF’s] offer.”

Thal also commented on the letter sent to the mayor, saying it “implies that we changed the Norbert School from community use to non-community use because it was something we wanted to do or we’re happy about.” He said that is not the case.

Thal said that after the original occupant, the COMPASS School, left in 2009, the JPNDC spent three years having 50 different parties look at the property. He said HSTF was helpful in referring potential users. Thal said JPNDC vetted and had conversations with potential users, but they were unsuccessful and housing was the only viable offer.

“The idea we made an inexplicable change is not how it went down,” said Thal.

Sánchez said anytime when there is property development of this kind, there is always going to be an exchange of ideas.

“I will continue to talk to them and encourage them to go back to the table,” said Sánchez. “This is not the first or last time that we have a challenging debate.”



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